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It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it.
So when their government called on them to assist in an important, perhaps life-saving assignment, Jay Cline, Gail Ralston, Amelia Couhig and a fella who called himself Mr. X all bravely signed on.
Their job: start drinking alcohol seriously at 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning and then drink without pause until they were absolutely soused.
The four had been asked to participate in the exercise by Luke Bogues, an officer with the Port Townsend Police Department.
Bogues, who also is a trained field sobriety test instructor, was conducting training for peninsula law enforcement personnel in scientifically valid techniques for recognizing intoxication. He was joined by Swift Sanchez, an officer with the Suquamish Tribal Police, who also is an expert in recognizing impaired drivers. Both were trained by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and conducted the exercises on the commission’s behalf.
The officers who participated included representatives from the Clallam Sheriff’s Office and the Port Angeles Police Department. The experience was odd for all involved, but it also was vital: Washington averages almost 600 traffic deaths a year, with 40 to 50 percent of those involving alcohol.
Discerning who is drunk may seem easy, but it isn’t. Making a determination that will hold up in court requires training and, as the participants learned, experience.
The bar is open
Bogues and Sanchez arrived early to set up the bar, which consisted of three half-gallon bottles of liquor supplied by the taxpayers via the Washington Liquor Board. The bottles — one each of vodka, gin and Canadian whiskey — were 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), the standard used in these tests. Mixers were available, with the officers serving as bartenders.
And then the volunteers got down to business.
All except for one — Jay Cline (full disclosure: Cline is the Gazette’s IT guru). When the call went out for a “control” — someone who wouldn’t touch a drop, but who would be similarly tested by the police officers, Amelia Couhig (even more full disclosure: my daughter), declined, pointing out reasonably that she was there to participate fully in the educational opportunities the experience would provide.
Cline manned up.
In fact the experience turned out to be more than a good time at taxpayer expense: It was a real eye-opener for everyone involved.
After having three drinks, Ralston was already at 0.08, the state standard for drunken driving.
Couhig, who is of approximately the same size as Ralston, imbibed nine drinks before arriving at a 0.1, or 0.02 of a percent higher. At that point Couhig was asked if she felt capable of driving. “In an emergency, yes,” she said.
Sanchez was asked the same question: Is Couhig capable of driving?
“Absolutely not,” she said.
Both Couhig and Ralston clearly were inebriated, exhibiting both the physical characteristics of impairment and the social ones (i.e., both were absolutely convinced they were much smarter and funnier than they actually were).
Mr. X, on the other hand, downed 13 drinks, showed a 0.14 blood alcohol level and then passed the sobriety test given by one of the officers-in-training. And in fact his demeanor was largely unchanged: Mr. X was quiet, calm and spoke with no notable evidence of impairment, even as he approached a blood alcohol level double the legal limit.
On the other hand, Cline, stone sober, was his usual laconic self, but he was considered highly suspect by the testing officers because of the difficulty he exhibited in completing the physical tests.
Science steps in
Bogues said the roadside tests he teaches provide a well-trained officer with very useful and very accurate tools for judging the sobriety of a driver. That’s important, he noted, because the hand-held Breathalyzers carried by some officers aren’t accepted by courts as evidence.
Asking a driver to recite the alphabet backward is a “myth,” Bogues said, one popularized by TV and movies. Instead the test consists of three trials of physical dexterity, with officers looking for two “clues” to establish impairment.
The first trial is the one-legged stand, in which the subject stands on one foot and lifts the other slightly up and forward, holding it six inches or so above the ground. The inability to balance this way is a tell-tale sign.
The second is the legendary “walk a straight line” test, in which the subject is required to walk a line, then turn and walk back. As part of the test the subject is required to keep his hands close by his sides (thereby avoiding the man-on-a-tightrope look).
The third is the most telling and the toughest one to beat. To conduct “the horizontal gaze nystagmus test,” the officer asks the subject to keep his gaze on an object held by the officer — usually a pen. This is swept from the left to the right of the subject’s field of vision. When they have alcohol in their system, most people will display an involuntary jerking of the eyes. “It looks like windshield wipers on a dirty windshield,” Sanchez explained.
At the “maximum deviation” — when the eye is turned to its furthest extent to either the left or the right — the eye tends to move slowly toward center.
It’s impossible to fake this one, Bogues said.
Nevertheless, Mr. X passed the test on his first try and announced afterward he’d gamed the system. He even explained how he’d done it and Bogues agreed: Mr. X’s strategy is effective on many police officers. (Sorry, but we’re not going to repeat it here.)
Bogues pointed out that was why he was conducting the training — to provide the fine details of the test. “We have a training video — ‘The Truth Is in the Eyes.’ That’s true,” he said.
Bogues said there are differences among all drinkers, particularly regarding individual tolerance, which tends higher in heavier drinkers. Nevertheless, the “nystagmus test is still 80-percent effective,” he said. Taken together the three tests, properly conducted, are 91-95 percent effective.
Bogues said officers also look at other evidence, saying a proper determination of impairment is a four-part effort. They also take note of:
1) The vehicle in motion. “Why did you stop the driver?” Was he weaving, speeding or exhibiting some other tell-tale sign?
2) Personal contact. Is there an odor, are there cans in the car, “Did the driver admit to drinking?”
3) The exit from the car (“Did he stumble” or grab the door for support?), followed by the three-part field sobriety test.
4) If it’s required, the officer also can conduct a valid blood alcohol level test using a more expensive, and more accurate, testing device at the department headquarters.
Bogues also noted that it’s impairment, not blood level, that determines who is drunk. “Someone under 0.08 can get a DUI ticket,” he said.
Sanchez said in her 10-year career she’s seen the number of drunken drivers decline but said the number of drug-impaired drivers has risen. “The level of impairment has gone way up,” she said. She noted that many of those ingesting drugs now are taking two or more at a time, multiplying their effects.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.